For any team to be successful, total devotion to that team from every player is an absolute must.
So then, what happens when one player is so good that two teams pull for him to perform at a top level, day in and day out? Is it possible to dedicate yourself fully to both? If you’re MLS and U.S. National Team midfielder Sacha Kljestan, the answer is simple: yes.
Here is the soccer star’s story about getting to the pros and balancing work for his two employers.
Road to the Pros
For the past two summers, Kljestan has taken on double duty, playing for his MLS Club team, Chivas USA, and the U.S. National Team. This Huntington Beach, Calif., native takes neither opportunity for granted. He sees them as a lifelong goal being achieved. “Since I was a young dude, I always had a soccer ball around the house and was always dribbling it everywhere,” Kljestan says. “After the ’94 World Cup, soccer became super interesting for me. I was 10 years old, and I was telling everyone that I’m going to be a pro soccer player.”
Not until Kljestan went to Seton Hall University did others begin to take his skills seriously. Following his 2003 Freshman Male Athlete of the Year Award-winning season, he “felt really good about the way things were going,” Kljestan says. “And I thought I really had a chance to make it.” In just 60 matches in his three-year college career, Kljestan managed 20 goals and 28 assists for the Pirates.
Kljestan’s versatility and reputation as a team player were hard to overlook, and, in an effort to rebuild the club, Chivas USA took him with the fifth overall pick in the ’06 MLS Draft.
Playing for Chivas
Despite his success at the collegiate level, Kljestan was not expecting an easy ride with Chivas. “I knew it would take a lot of hard work and determination; I have always been taught that,” he says. “And it wasn’t easy coming into a professional team. The game is a lot faster, so you have to think and play a lot faster. Obviously, I am not the most physical guy; so I figured out how to out-think my opponents. And I set my body up so I could move fast and not lose the ball.”
One of the first players to help Kljestan was long-time MLS vet Jesse Marsch. “He told me that you’ve got to compete every day to prove that you are a winner,” Kljestan says. “You’ve got to prove to the coaches that you deserve to play and to your teammates that you deserve to be on the field with them. If you can’t earn the respect of your teammates and the guys you play against, you won’t have the confidence of your teammates.”
Marsch’s advice to the rookie paid off. Kljestan fought his way into the starting 11 and notched seven assists during the season, helping him finish as the runner-up for ’06 MLS Rookie of the Year.
Since ’06, Kljestan has taken on a more attacking role in the midfield, racking up 30 assists and nine goals. His skill isn’t only offensive, though; Kljestan also works the defensive zone, and he takes pride in being a well-rounded player. “I need to be consistent—and not just by scoring goals or making assists,” Kljestan says. “I have to help my team in every little way by winning balls, tackling and running hard for my teammates. Stuff like that is very important. I pride myself on being a good footballer and that I can play any position. So at any time we need a right back or center mid or a second forward, I know how to play soccer, and I can move around in different positions.”
Representing His Country
Playing and starting in more than 30 games during the eight-month MLS season is more than enough for any professional player. But Kljestan’s season doesn’t end there. On top of all the time and energy he gives his club, Kljestan has taken on the additional responsibility of representing America on the U.S. National Team, which is now coached by Bob Bradley, Chivas’ coach when Kljestan was drafted. “Getting called into camp to play with all these guys I’ve been watching play while I grew up, and guys who I play against in the MLS, was pretty cool. I was excited,” Kljestan recalls.
Despite his excitement, Kljestan wouldn’t be satisfied until he earned a spot in the starting 11. “I was in camp with the team, working really hard, but I didn’t make the game-day roster or get to play,” Kljestan says. “That was a bit disappointing for me, but it just meant I had to work harder. The level of play is higher than the MLS—faster and more physical. Everybody is competing for a spot. And because you want to play and represent your country, everything is multiplied and magnified. The coaches are watching you more closely, so you’ve got to play harder and faster. It’s all a bit tougher.”
Earning a starting spot against guys like DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark is no easy task, but Kljestan put in more than four months of hard work to do it. In June 2007, he finally got his first cap on the Senior National Team, tallying an assist in a 4-1 victory over China.
Making the Adjustment
Kljestan’s role on the National Team was different from that on Chivas. “Going into the National Team, [you’ve got to understand that] you’re not going to be the star of the team,” he says. “I had to earn my way the same way I did when I was in college or when I came into Chivas. I knew that when I get the ball, [I need] to pass it off to the next guy and let the veterans do their thing. I had to earn the respect of the older guys; that was something I tried to do when I first got there.”
In the summer of 2008, Kljestan was selected for the U.S. Olympic squad to compete in Beijing, where he was the top U.S. goal scorer during the tournament. Since then, he’s become a regular on the Senior National Team. Kljestan’s first goals with the Senior Team came in January ’09 in a friendly match against Sweden, where he netted three to become one of two U.S. players to score a hat trick in the same game as their first goal.
Kljestan has no time to relax, with the MLS season just starting and the World Cup only months away. But to have the opportunity to play for both his club and country, Kljestan wouldn’t want it any other way.